Why I really am a tree hugger

Ancient oaks have stories to tell

Ancient oaks have stories to tell - Credit: Ross Hoddinott/2020VISION

Norfolk Wildlife Trust evangelist Nick Acheson is up close and personal with a 600-year-old oak

I hugged a tree the other day. Actually put my arms around a tree and hugged it. It was wonderful. 

It was an ancient oak, comfortably five centuries old. A great cleft reached the whole length of its trunk, from peaty floor to crown, revealing that time and a million woodland lives had hollowed it. What once had been its heartwood lay as a bed of warm brown dust inside its empty column.  

Quite spontaneously I put my arms around the tree, rested my head on the smooth, pale wood exposed beside its scar, and closed my eyes. I smiled. Eyes closed, I could invoke the story of this venerable tree in my imagination.  

Some 600 years ago in April - let’s say - two oaks came into flower. Still naked from winter’s hardship, these trees, and all the others round them, produced both male and female flowers. The female flowers of oaks are small and stubby. Male flowers are spindly catkins, mustard-green, shaped by evolution to quiver in the breeze and sprinkle pollen.  

Against all statistical odds, a grain of pollen from one of these imagined trees fell on the other’s tiny female flower. Pollination: genetic alchemy and the beginning of new life. 

Looking up into the branches of an old oak

Looking up into the branches of an old oak - Credit: David North

All through the summer, the mother tree (not female, but whose female flower was pollinated) nurtured the resulting acorn, and thousands like it, filling them with the energy required for gemination. 

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Most of these acorns doubtless perished, eaten by red squirrels, wood mice or badgers, or domestic pigs turned out, under the ancient right of pannage, to forage them. One, I imagine, was harvested by a jay, cached somewhere secret, and forgotten.  

Next spring this little acorn poked a tiny tuft of leaves up through its bluebell blanket. An oak was born. 

Perhaps at this stage humans intervened, placing a protective veil of thorny branches around the seedling, to protect it. The tree grows in an historic pasture wood, where for centuries livestock grazed beneath tall timber trees. As a tiny seedling it could easily have been trampled by a cow or browsed by a roe deer’s velvet lips. Somehow it survived, and grew and thrived. Became a tree. 

Here it has stood for centuries.  

Bluebells at Heydon

Bluebells at Heydon - Credit: Rob Peacock

How many millions of winter moth caterpillars have gnawed its leaves? How many thousands of blue tits have hunted them to feed their hungry chicks? How many tawny owls have fluted in the jagged branches of the oak? How many nightingales and tree pipits - both now extinct here in north Norfolk - have been heard in song around it? How many lovesick swains have lain against the tree, cradling their maidens in their laps? To how much warfare, hunger, joy and desperation has this silent oak been witness? 

All these passages in the story of the tree - made up but wholly credible - sprang to my mind as I embraced it. More powerful still was what I felt: how small, how comfortingly unimportant in the span of time, how lucky to be standing in this glorious wood, my arms around an ancient tree. 

Almost without exception, for wildlife habitat there is no substitute for time. The flora of this ancient wood - yellow archangel, yellow pimpernel, wood sorrel, wood anemone, wood speedwell, bluebell, pignut, greater stitchwort - has developed over centuries. Indeed, it’s probably a relic of a wilder wooded age, before the massive deforestation of the Stone Age and the Bronze Age.  

The same is true for hay meadows, for heaths, for downland and for fens. The longer they have existed, the less their soils have been contaminated by fertilisers, pesticides and runoff from our roads, the more diverse their flora and their fauna. Such places are priceless receptacles both of our biodiversity and our landscape history. 

Planting new hedges on a Norfolk farm

Planting new hedges on a Norfolk farm - Credit: Richard Osbourne

But they are nothing like enough. Nature will not survive if we accept that it be banished to these gilded ghettos. Having lost the huge majority of our wildlife in the past two hundred years - 70% of farmland birds, the vast majority of farmland ponds, 85% of lowland heathland, hundreds of miles of ancient hedges, thousands of acres of meadows, downs and Breckland grass, most of our winter stubbles - what’s left is but a feeble fragment of what our forebears knew, enjoyed and loved a handful of generations past.  

It’s true that ancient trees are rare and precious. It’s true that ancient habitats hold far more vulnerable, specialist species than modern agricultural landscapes. And at all costs we must protect them. But we need to think in terms of nature’s recovery everywhere. In terms of bringing wildlife back across the landscape.  

Just as the tree I hugged was once a spindly seedling, and over centuries has become a rugged ancient oak, so the places we set aside for nature now can - with time - become rich and complex habitat for wildlife. 

At Norfolk Wildlife Trust we understand this. We understand that reaching out from our reserves across the landscape is critical in this age of climate and biodiversity crises. Through our Claylands Wilder Connections project, we’re helping landowners and communities replant lost hedges and restore lost ponds.  

At Thompson Common, which your generosity helped us expand in 2020, we are recreating pingos which have been lost and helping arable land revert to Breckland grassland. At Hoe Rough we’re planting black poplar saplings where they must once have grown.  

At Foxley Wood, where we recently acquired a missing notch of land, we’re allowing ancient woodland flora to spill back, and replanting rare wild service, small-leaved lime and midland thorn. 

For now, the habitats we’re restoring are fragile, simple, new. But with the gift of time, and with your support, one day they will be vibrant habitat for wildlife once again.  

In my daydream, as I hugged a tree the other day, I thought of someone six hundred years from now. Wrapping their arms around a tree, they thanked us - thanked Norfolk Wildlife Trust, our members, our supporters, everyone in Norfolk - for having cared, for having dreamed that such an ancient tree was possible.